Murder at Mansfield Park

12 February 2012

Aha, you thought I’d forgotten all about Sunday being Book Review Day, hadn’t you? Well, I hadn’t so THERE. There was supposed to be a review as usual last week but after some minor tussling, loss of sleep and soul searching, I decided to forgo it for a week.

The thing is that I accidentally read a book that I thoroughly detested and as a result found myself caught between my Reviewer Hat and my Writing Bonnet. Yes, I said ‘bonnet’. I actually really wanted to review the book and explain just what I thought was so weak and throughly annoying about it, I mean how can you trust my good reviews if I never have a bad word to say about anything? On the other hand, I keep hearing that it is really REALLY bad form for writers to give fellow writers bad reviews – for a start it might make you look embittered or jealous of their success.

The other thing is that like actors and singers, writers can be a pretty superstitious lot too and a lot seem to believe in the apparently justified karmic retribution of Bad Reviews. Anyway, in the end I decided to just leave it and register my disappointment by giving the said book just one damning star on Goodreads.

Of course, I usually read two or three books a week, but the ironic thing about Bad Books is that they are so soul sucking, so deathly dull, so dreadful that reading them is like doing a breast crawl through two day old porridge. Reading becomes a chore rather than a delight and ultimately you find that you have spent three times as long reading the bloody thing as you did your most favourite book in all the world.

Anyway, let’s move on to the first of last week’s books, which was Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd. I wasn’t sure about this to be honest as I have read some really, REALLY ropey Austen pastiches. As with Sherlock Holmes, there is such a definite idiom and particularity to Austen’s books that you would think that assuming her mantle would be very easy indeed – however, again like Sherlock Holmes, it’s actually a lot more difficult to pull off than writers seem to imagine – either you don’t make enough effort or, worse, you go too far and it just turns into an awful turgid meretricious mess.

Happily, Lynn Shepherd manages to avoid all of this and I think that this is almost certainly the best Austen pastiche that I have read to date, mainly because Shepherd is relatively light handed about slipping in Austen references and knows when to stop and let her own delightful writing take over.

The premise of Murder at Mansfield Park is an interesting one as unlike most versions of Austen’s books, Shepherd has rearranged the characters, swapping the personalities of some, enhancing or lowering those of others and, most crucially, redistributing the wealth that was the crux of the original book. In this version, Fanny Price is an only child and a fabulously wealthy heiress, while her cousins, Maria and Julia, although well off, are rather less fortunate. In this book, it is Fanny, who is the pampered favourite of the dreaded Mrs Norris, while Julia (who is reminiscent of Marianne Dashwood) is the unfortunate recipient of her heavy hints and barbed comments.

I’ve always thoroughly detested Fanny Price. She really is just as Kingsley Amis described her: ‘a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.’ I think she is horrible and yet I feel really bad for thinking this as she’s such a meek little mouse and so hard done by but oh crikey, can you imagine her milquetoast Facebook updates? Or her passive aggressive Twitter feed?

Anyway, if you hated Fanny Price as a simpering poor relation, you’ll absolutely loathe her in her new guise as a pampered, spoiled heiress. Oh, she is marvellously awful in every way. I absolutely REVELLED in it.

As a fan of Mary Crawford, I was also very much delighted by her new role where she has been knocked down a few pegs down the social ladder but is a lot sweeter for it. I always thought that there was a lot more to Mary Crawford than Jane Austen revealed in Mansfield Park and in this book, her full intelligence, bravery and compassion are revealed to make her an extremely compelling and loveable heroine.

Naturally, all of this rejiggery means that new alliances are formed, new romances occur and at the end of the book, the pairings off so beloved by Miss Austen are completely transformed and, I believe, just as they should be.

I should make special mention of my favourite character, Mrs Norris who is even more deliciously spiteful and unpleasant here than she is in the original text. She’s utterly dreadful and also rather marvellous too.

Now, let’s not forget that this isn’t just a version of one of Austen’s most troubling books, it’s also a murder mystery. It isn’t too difficult to work out whodunnit but the scenery and characterisation are so entertaining that you really won’t care about that but just enjoy the journey. It can be a bit gruesome at times, but not excessively so and certainly not enough to jar with the rather cosy atmosphere of the book.

I definitely recommend this one and especially so to Austen fans like myself who wouldn’t ordinarily read a new modern version of her work.

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